The physical benefits of regular exercise are easy to understand, well-documented and obvious to almost everyone. Lift weights and you get stronger muscles. Do aerobic exercise and you get a more efficient cardiovascular system. Do sports, or take dance or martial arts classes, and you become more coordinated and physically aware.
More elusive, however, are clear explanations of why exercise has so many positive psychological and emotional benefits. In particular, it is difficult to find simple answers to the following basic questions: why does exercise give people the type of positive outcomes that are common to mindfulness practices such as meditation and yoga? Why, exactly, does exercise give one a greater sense of well-being, emotional clarity and, ultimately, happiness?
Scientific research into these questions provides us with physiological answers to the questions above, and there are a great number of journal articles out there that explain various neurological mechanisms that account for all the positive psychological and emotional benefits of exercise. However, most of the articles are so filled with technical jargon that you need an advanced degree in neurobiology to even understand the titles. In other words, to most of us, these scholarly articles are no help at all.
In this article, I’ll address these questions from a personal, experiential perspective, and I’ll discuss how both traditional exercise and more esoteric mindfulness practices have helped me on my journey as a recovering addict.
A Little About Me
I’m a lifelong exerciser. I played soccer and basketball until midway through high school, and I was also a middle distance runner. A typical week in my childhood found me involved in at least two or three sports practices, as well as after school bike riding and pick-up games of football or basketball just about every day. A typical Saturday morning for me would be to rise early, run a 5k or 10k road race with my father and brother, and then go play my team soccer or basketball game. In my 20s I studied yoga and became a yoga teacher. I also studied Chinese martial arts and qigong for 10 years, from my mid-20s to my mid-30s. My 30s brought me to road cycling. Now, in my mid-40s, my regular exercise routine includes yoga, qigong and a hefty dose of cycling.
In addition to the above, I’m also a recovering addict and incest survivor. I’ve dealt with addictions to alcohol and drugs, as well as to sex, love and relationships. An integral part of my recovery has been exercise, both traditional, in the form of running and cycling, and mindfulness based, in the form of yoga and qigong. As a point of interest, I put martial arts somewhere in between the two, because martial arts operate on both physical and mental levels.
Ok, enough about me. On to the topic: why does exercise help your psychological and emotional well-being in ways similar to meditation and other mindfulness practices?
For most people, and I include myself in this group, one of the most difficult things about meditation is what to do with the mind. My mind simply won’t shut up. Chatter, chatter, chatter. Yadda yadda yadda. Blah, blah, blah. Bills to pay. Stress at work. Tough relationship events. Kids. The list goes on and on, and it’s virtually impossible not to think about all that stuff. After all, it’s our job as adults to take care of business—to pay bills, to deal with work, to parent our kids, to figure out our marriages or relationships. It even feels irresponsible not to think about that stuff all the time.
As a recovering addict, I have so many layers of negative self-talk to get through that the problem is compounded exponentially. If I sit down to meditate, suddenly it feels as if I’m on fire. All my issues are there, yammering at me in my head. I can’t shut them up and I can’t shut them out, yet that is exactly what I’m being asked to do. Don’t worry about the future; don’t ruminate on the past. Focus on the present moment. Just follow your breath, and allow your mind to become still and clear.
Yeah, RIGHT. Not gonna happen. Not for this mind, at least.
This is where exercise comes in. This is where moving meditation, in the form of yoga, qigong, or martial arts, comes in. You see, meditation asks us to focus on the present—don’t worry about the future, and don’t drive yourself crazy with what’s happened in the past—and that’s just what exercise and moving meditation force us to do. When running, cycling or even playing basketball, for instance, we are completely focused on the here and now. The moment is the only thing.
During traditional exercise, here’s what goes on in my mind:
Cycling: I’m going to make it up this hill. I can stay on this guy’s wheel. Wow, my thighs really hurt.
Running: I’m going to make it just one more mile. My knee feels kinda funny. My calf is a little sore. I’m going to make it to that mailbox there, if it’s the last thing I do.
Basketball: I’m going to catch this ball. I’m going to get this rebound. I’m going to make this shot—elbow points at the basket, flip the wrist. Now run! Get back on defense.
During mindfulness practices, it’s more like this:
Yoga: Are my feet in alignment? Is my spine lengthening? Where is my arm supposed to be? OK, relax the shoulders. Stabilize the hips. What do I do with my hands? Is my knee over my toe? Wow, this is a lot harder than I thought. But I can stay in this posture a few more seconds, for sure.
Qigong: Relax the shoulders, inhale, lift the arms up. Exhale; bring them down in a circular motion. Now, left hand up, right hand down. Now, the opposite…
I could go on, but I think you may be getting the idea. What’s happening is that both traditional exercise and moving mindfulness practices force you into the present moment by default. If you’re actually doing them correctly, you can’t be stressing about the future or dissecting the past. You can only be in the now. Whether it’s the technique that’s grounding you, such as shooting a basketball or executing a yoga pose, or it’s the physical sensations that are grounding you, such as thigh pain during cycling or running, the result is the same: you are in the moment, as surely as if you were meditating.
That’s how, in my experience, exercise and movement practices give you the same benefits as meditation: it’s a simple trick of psychological misdirection. They grab the attention of your brain, force you to be fully in the here and now, and then—meditation slips in the side door.
Never has this phenomenon been more important for me than during recovery from my addictions. When I quit drinking, running and yoga calmed my mind. When I quit smoking weed, martial arts and qigong soothed my soul. When I finally faced the fact that I was a sex, love and relationship addict, it was a combination of yoga, cycling and qigong that gave me the peace of mind I most desperately needed.
And guess what? I can finally sit down and meditate. Not for too long, but I’m getting there, one day at a time.